Skip to comments.Gibson breaks Hollywood's 10 Commands
Posted on 03/17/2004 6:50:02 AM PST by truthandlife
Green grosses: As saints go, you wouldn't expect a connection between St. Patrick and "The Passion of the Christ."
But this being St. Paddy's Day, you can raise a glass in his honor anyway since Hollywood's green with envy over all that boxoffice green Mel Gibson is making as "Passion" builds from nearly $270 million now to about $400 million in domestic theatrical grosses.
Gibson's triumph here compared to his earlier "Braveheart" success reflects his having broken Hollywood's Ten Commandments of movie marketing and distribution. With "Braveheart" in 1995 Gibson did things conventionally and let Paramount and others finance the $72 million production, which went on to gross about $202 million worldwide while winning five Oscars, including best picture and director. By following his own path now with "Passion," Gibson orchestrated a success story that could serve as a case study for film schools for years to come. Beyond that, Gibson should profit for years to come since as a period piece costume drama "Passion" can enjoy an Easter afterlife in theaters from now till doomsday.
Because "Passion" will be timely to re-issue theatrically at Easter for years to come, it has the potential to wind up as the biggest grossing film in movie history -- at least if you calculate that record on the basis of the cumulative gross from multiple releases of the same film. To do so, it will have to overtake "Titanic's" roughly $1.8 billion worldwide total, which seems possible in the future, but isn't likely on the basis of "Passion's" initial release. If "Passion" winds up with somewhere between $1 billion and $1.2 billion worldwide this time around, it's possible that well planned reissues down the road could send it sailing past "Titanic."
In breaking or bending so many of Hollywood's basic rules -- studio development executives would probably give them the punchier name Ten Commands rather than Ten Commandments -- Gibson showed considerable courage that's paid off big-time for him. It's doubtful that he envisioned the level of monetary success the film has enjoyed or even that money was a driving force for him. His personal passion for the project seems very genuine whether one agrees or disagrees with the specific nature of his religious point of view. Moreover, given reports of how distributors around town turned down the chance to release "Passion," it's clear that nobody saw this as being the moneymaker it's become.
Here's a quick look at the Ten Commands Gibson opted not to obey and how not doing so helped turn "Passion" into a blockbuster.
1. Thou shalt use other people's money to finance your movie.
Traditionally Hollywood considers anyone who puts his own money into financing a movie to be a sucker (or, I believe, in Aramaic "an investor"). The name of the game is to use other people's money to finance your movie. Although Hollywood superstars and high profile filmmakers often talk about pet projects they'd love to bring to the screen, they almost never dip into their own bank accounts to make them. If they talked to their accountants, as Gibson seems to have done, they'd understand that with their considerable incomes the tax losses from one failed film would simply offset other earnings. Of course, if the film didn't fail, they'd wind up owning the equivalent of a gold mine.
In Gibson's case, his personal passion for "Passion" was so great and apparently so unshared by the Hollywood community that there was no other way this film would have gotten made other than with his own money. While it's unclear whether the $30 million to make "Passion" came from Gibson's personal bank account or from his and Bruce Davey's Icon Productions, what is clear is that the film's boxoffice bonanza will give Gibson a heavenly return on his investment.
Last weekend as "Passion" overtook "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" to become the biggest grossing independent film ever -- $264.5 million and still counting vs. "Wedding's" $241.4 million in domestic theaters -- it brought to mind Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who found "Wedding" when it was a one-woman Nia Vardalos play in L.A. and believed in it so much that they got it made as a movie. Had they self-financed the picture, however, they'd have seen the sort of staggering profits Gibson is enjoying from "Passion." In the case of "Wedding," however, the bulk of the profits from its $356.5 million worldwide theatrical gross must have gone to Gold Circle Films and HBO Films, who put up its $5 million production budget.
Not only did Gibson self-finance the making of "Passion," but the film's marketing and distribution costs also were fronted by Icon. That kept a lid on the distribution fees paid to Newmarket Films. While Newmarket will still do very nicely with a fee that's said to be between 10 and 12 percent of the distributor's gross, it would have made much more money had it invested the marketing money.
In any event, Gibson put his money where his mouth is and now he's got something to shout about.
2. Thou shalt let a good film speak for itself by screening it early for the media.
Gibson recognized from the get-go that screening "Passion" early wasn't the way to go. If creating controversy was the key to building awareness of the film, letting the media have an early look at it couldn't possibly help. The less people know about something the greater the controversy over it is likely to be. By refusing to show "Passion" to the groups that were insisting on seeing it, Gibson kept everybody riled up enough to provide fuel for the media frenzy over whether "Passion" is or isn't anti-Semitic.
Instead of generating dull television reports or newspaper articles with one set of opinions balancing another set of opinions about the film and its message, the resulting media coverage focused on how incensed people were that Gibson wouldn't let them have an early look at his movie. The more people were told they couldn't see it, the more they wanted to see it. By keeping just about everyone in the dark Gibson accomplished a lot more than he would have by doing the usual round of opinion maker screenings in key cities across the country. If he'd shown the film to religious groups in major markets, some would undoubtedly have said it wasn't as damaging as they thought it was going to be. That, in turn, would not have helped make the public want to see it.
It's unclear, by the way, whether the film has actually had an effect one way or the other on anti-Semitism. Reading Tuesday's Drudge Report.com, one of my favorite Web sites for breaking news and coverage of the media, I found a link to Houston TV station KPRC that was headlined "Survey: 'The Passion' May Be Reducing Anti-Semitism." The story said that, "a new poll suggests fears that (the film) would trigger anti-Semitism were unwarranted. A nationwide survey conducted for the Institute for Jewish and Community Research finds that 83 percent of Americans familiar with the film say it's made them neither more nor less likely to blame today's Jews for Jesus' crucifixion."
The KPRC story added that 9 percent of those polled said the film "made them less likely to blame today's Jews, while less than 2 percent said they're more likely to fault modern Jews or Jewish institutions." Not knowing anything about who did the research and how it was conducted, it's hard to evaluate this report. Nonetheless, it certainly does contrast with media opinions before "Passion" opened that it would have a devastating effect on Christian-Jewish relations. This more neutral kind of reporting would not have created as much want-to-see for the movie as resulted from Gibson keeping it under wraps pre-opening.
3. Thou shalt keep network television advertising at the heart of a film's marketing campaign.
Network television advertising may be more expensive than ever and may deliver less audience than it used to, but Hollywood marketers still love it and plan their media campaigns around it. When major studios commit $25 million or more to launching a movie, network TV gets the lion's share of that money. In the case of "Passion," Gibson didn't have that kind of money to spend on marketing nor did he choose to pour it down the network drain.
The grassroots marketing effort that Gibson undertook for "Passion" initially on his own and later through Newmarket Films was a lean one that relied on reaching the film's core audience of Christian moviegoers and potential moviegoers by getting local church groups to promote seeing the film. Group ticket sales at, presumably, discounted prices were a key element in this campaign. Getting the right core audience to see the film first so they could then spread favorable word of mouth was a smart approach, especially because it didn't require network TV spots.
Although "Passion" has now grossed so much money that even $50 million in opening and pre-opening marketing expenses would already have been recouped, the fact is that when Gibson was devising his campaign strategy no one anticipated anything resembling this level of success. Gibson was smart to resist the temptation to write a check for, say, another $15 million to try to duplicate a major studio campaign revolving around network TV spots.
4. Thou shalt hold press junkets because they're the best way to generate publicity.
Gibson's done so many press junkets that he, of all people, must know how ineffective they really are. By bringing together in New York or L.A. the usual crowd of jaded journalists from across the country and turning them loose for four or five minutes apiece on the film's stars, the resulting coverage is as bland and uniform as you could possibly generate. A press junket for "Passion" would have had Gibson sitting in a hotel room chair with a poster for the film on an easel beside him and a plant on a table behind him looking like it was growing out of his head. Whatever answers Gibson might have given to the typically inane questions that get asked at such junkets, they would not have driven people to see his movie the way television reports about the controversy raging over the then unseen film did.
5. Thou shalt honor thy superstars by paying them big bucks to generate big opening weekend ticket sales.
Whatever Gibson paid Jim Caviezel to star in "Passion" has got to be a lot less than Hollywood typically pays Gibson to star in a movie. Gibson didn't turn to superstar casting to make his own movie, however, because he knew high profile stars weren't the answer for this picture.
If Gibson, for instance, had cast himself to play Christ, moviegoers would have sat there and instead of being drawn into the film they'd have been thinking about how that's Mel Gibson under all that bloody body makeup. Bottom line, by skipping star casting Gibson was able to bring his film in for around $30 million. Add one superstar to that budget and you'd wind up with around $60 million, figuring a $25 million salary and another $5 million in related costs for the entourage and perks that accompany big stars these days.
6. Thou shalt avoid R ratings, subtitles, strange languages, blood & gore and graphic violence because they limit a film's audience.
With nearly $270 million in grosses already under its belt, "Passion" is poised to become the biggest R rated film ever this weekend. That record will fall as soon as "Passion" passes $281.6 million, which "The Matrix Reloaded" did domestically last year.
The conventional wisdom in Hollywood has for years been that R ratings aren't so great because they serve to limit a film's audience by excluding people under the age of 17 (unless they're accompanied by a parent or guardian). Gibson clearly rejected the idea of writing and filming "Passion" so that it would land a PG-13 rating. That just wasn't going to be the movie he wanted to make and, to his credit, he refused to compromise. He put his money where his mouth was and took the risk of failing.
When "Passion" is ready to do a network television sale, Gibson will have to confront the film's R rating and see if there is some way to deal with it so that it can be shown on broadcast TV. Quite possibly at that time he will be comfortable saying that while he didn't compromise at all in terms of the film's R rating for theaters, he wants to see it play now to the broadest possible television audience and, therefore, will do what it takes to make it acceptable to be aired. In this post-Janet Jackson world of five-second delays, Gibson might be able to turn to the FCC for some special dispensation that would permit a late night telecast of his R rated film (or, perhaps, of a somewhat edited version of the movie).
Gibson also included in his film a number of elements that Hollywood typically doesn't embrace. Subtitles, for instance, are generally thought to be a major limitation on how much business a film is likely to do in the U.S. because American moviegoers are considered uncomfortable with the idea of having to divert their eyes from following the action on screen to reading subtitles. The most successful subtitled domestic theatrical release, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," grossed about $128.1 million in 2000 and it had the advantage of having many strong martial arts action scenes. Clearly, by using subtitles in "Passion" Gibson didn't hurt ticket sales.
Strange foreign languages are also thought to be a turn-off to American moviegoers because they have a kind of gibberish sound to ears that aren't accustomed to hearing them. French, Italian and Spanish, by comparison, at least sound vaguely familiar to moviegoers who don't speak those languages because they've probably seen films by directors from those countries in the past. By having his characters speak Aramaic and Latin, Gibson gave moviegoers dialogue that is very strange sounding to most ears. Nonetheless, it hasn't kept people away from seeing "Passion."
Blood & gore and graphic violence on the screen are also considered factors that limit a film's audience appeal, especially to women. Here, too, Gibson opted not to restrain himself and wound up doing what he felt the picture required in the way of violence. You don't have to agree with him to acknowledge that he did have the courage of his convictions.
Has Gibson wound up paying the price for all that violence? Actually, not at all. On the one hand, the film's original core audience of devout Christians was willing to accept the blood & gore and violence in "Passion" because it rang true in terms of the story. Whether they were forced to look away from the screen throughout the film isn't something we have statistics on at the moment. On the other hand, the film is said to be attracting a new audience demographic now of young males who happen to love onscreen blood & gore and are attracted to violent images. They usually find those elements in horror genre films, but now they're finding them in "Passion" just as they probably did in the graphic torture sequences in Gibson's Oscar-winning "Braveheart" a few years ago.
7. Thou shalt screen your film at festivals to attract a strong independent distributor.
Gibson was smart to resist any temptations to unveil "Passion" at a major film festival. As a superstar long associated with the world of big-budget mainstream Hollywood movies, he'd have been in the wrong world at Sundance. With it having been quite difficult for "Passion" to achieve theatrical distribution in France, it's hard to believe it would have been the kind of film that would have been embraced at Cannes. It's hard to picture acquisitions executives for all those scrappy, studio-owned "independents" rushing up the aisle after viewing 10 minutes of the film to corner Gibson in the lobby and make him a distribution offer he couldn't refuse.
8. Thou shalt rely on a platform release in New York and L.A. to get word of mouth going.
If Gibson had gotten a studio distribution deal the likelihood is he would have been pressured into a platform release of "Passion" at a handful of theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Hollywood believes you get word of mouth going by starting in a couple of theaters and letting influential critics and the film's initial audiences spread the word. In the case of "Passion," the kind of buzz that would have been generated would almost certainly have been the wrong kind.
Gibson was right to figure that the U.S. media centers of New York and L.A. wouldn't give "Passion" the kind of reception it needed to survive. That response could only come from the heartland where the core audience for the movie could be found. By doing things his own way, Gibson avoided getting clobbered on the coasts, which would have wound up costing him a wide release for the movie.
9. Thou shalt covet promotional partners in fast food, fashion, cosmetics, toys and video games because they add big dollars to your marketing campaign and generate awareness for your film.
As important as Hollywood thinks fast food and other tie-in promotional campaigns are, they were clearly unsuitable for a film like "Passion." How much they actually contribute to the success of mainstream releases is open for debate, as well. Nonetheless, Gibson perceived that these were things to stay away from. The movie's staggering success proves, however, that you can do quite well without having a film's title plastered all over buckets of fried chicken or fast food trays.
10. Thou shalt control your destiny as a filmmaker by worshipping the golden idols of Wall Street to raise money for your own major studio.
Perhaps the greatest temptation that Gibson appears to have resisted is the one to springboard off a film's success by tapping Wall Street for the money to make more films through one's own major studio. The dream of starting your own studio and achieving parity with the established majors is one that's seduced other successful filmmakers before.
Gibson, however, apparently has the best of both worlds. With his investment in "Passion" having paid off, he can now finance the production and marketing of any similar scale movie he ever wants to make. By doing so, he'll once again be the sole owner of his movie. If he can get lightning to strike again at the boxoffice, he can take in another ton of money -- like the $350 million to $500 million in profits "Passion" seems likely to bring him -- and have the satisfaction of having done it on his own terms.
They miss their piece of the pie.
GOOD! As one who has completely boycotted Hollywierd for the past 3 and a half years, I applaud Mr. Gibson's courage. Our foray into the theaters to see "The Passion" twice broke our boycott (in a sense), but it was more than well worth it.
I hope the Hollywierd moguls consume themselves with jealousy. Idiots.
That said, this is an entertaining piece. Gibson broke all the rules, and now he's crying all the way to the bank, while the H'wood types are just crying.
What they do not grasp is "And Paul says in his letters that to preach Jesus crucified is a stumbling block and a scandal and that is not the wisdom of the world. " Then and now those rejecting Christ just adopt new guises.
The Christ they want is a military leader to conquer land and peoples or one who dies of old age while preaching. They got neither. Instead, what the world got was God's message of redemption. The suffering film shows no greater love than One willingly giving His life as a sacrifice for sin. His Blood is the Passover of the Lamb. Thank God.
Self-financing the production was one thing, but scripting it in ancient languages with subtitles in all modern languages was something else. A truly impressive artistic decision.
That makes The Passion equally accessible to everyone who can read, in that sense more like a painting or sculpture than a movie. And makes it eligible to become a true classic.
It couldn't have been done by a studio; where are you going to find a committee able to make that kind of gutsy call?
And all that would have been true whether it initially scored at the box office or not.
If "nobody" excludes people outside of Hollywood.
Regardless, God knew how big this movie would become. And he saw to it that Mel reaped the reward for being a good and faithful servant.
I read hear yesterday that he invested $30 million of his $50 million personal fortune, making him Man of the Decade, IMHO.
Heheh. I can the warped Hollywhores singing and holding hands on the beach at Malibu.......before they "light up."
I never thought about it before now but Mel has successfully used the "You can't come" marketing strategy from the episode of South Park where Cartman buys a amusement park!
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